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Creating Giants

How these guys grow marvelously large pumpkins



Adam Wheeler’s life has forever been entwined with plants. His grandparents on two sides gardened, as do his parents on rich Connecticut land in Morris. Growing up, after school he spent his time helping out in the large family vegetable garden and orchard. When he went off to college, he studied botany and horticulture. Today, at 29, he is a manager at Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, specializing in propagating unusual trees and shrubs. But mention the word pumpkin to Wheeler, and his eyes light up. He tells you about his consuming hobby, creating giants of the lowly gourd. 

Forget the neighborhood Halloween pumpkin patch. These “fruits,” as growers prefer to call them, are pumpkins on steroids, a special variety of Cucurbita maxima called ‘Atlantic Giant’ (AG), developed after 30 years of experimentation by Nova Scotia grower Howard Dill in 1979. Although farmers in America had always grown extra-large pumpkins for agricultural fairs, it was Dill’s creation that made for maximum pumpkin weights going from 400 pounds to well over a thousand pounds today. Cultivating them grew from a backyard hobby to a worldwide competitive sport. The Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, an umbrella organization, keeps track of the close to 80 weigh-offs in this country, Canada, and overseas, organized by local clubs as distant as Alaska and South Africa. It tallies their records and anoints the world’s champion. As of now, Rhode Island grower Joe Jutras holds the world record with his 1,689-pound pumpkin, picked in 2007. Wheeler belongs to the Connecticut Giant Squash and Pumpkin Growers Association, and he is raising his AGs to enter them at the association’s fifth annual weigh-off on Penfield Beach in Fairfield on September 27.

Wheeler came by his infatuation with giant pumpkins while a graduate student in plant and soil science at the University of Vermont. He wrote a grant application for a pumpkin project and won it. At year’s end he had raised a 659-pound pumpkin that was entered in the New England championship in 2002. It was displayed in the university library and it rode in the homecoming parade. When Wheeler moved back to Morris and bought a two-acre parcel of his parents’ land, he cleared a 50-by-70-foot plot for growing giant pumpkins.

“Each pumpkin plant needs about 700 square feet to grow on,” says Wheeler. “So space limits the number of fruits we can grow.” He generally raises four, and the journey from sod to the judge’s scale is an arduous one. It requires total commitment. His friend, champion-grower Joe Pukos, county surveyor in Leicester, New York, calls growing giant pumpkins “extreme gardening.”

Every fall, and then again in spring, the soil needs to be heavily fertilized with compost and organic nutrients, and then tested for pH or acidity level. (Seven is right for pumpkins.) In early May, seeds are chosen for sprouting in the greenhouse. Choosing ones to grow are akin to selecting bloodlines for thoroughbred race horses. In an effort to obtain the best strains, Wheeler, like all AG growers, participates in a countrywide exchange of seeds. For optimum weight, he wants a genetic line with thick fleshy walls and good water retention; the least ribbing is also paramount, to avoid premature splitting, one of the pitfalls of over-size fruit. This year Wheeler has placed his bets on proven-winner stock from colleagues in Ohio, in New Hampshire, and from Joe Pukos. “Joe sent me these seeds free before a champion 1,231-pounder was raised from the same lot,” Wheeler says with a smile. “Today I would probably have to pay $400 to $600  at a club auction for each seed.”  All have identifying numbers that correspond to their origin. 

He pots up eight seeds in the first week in May, and when the soil has warmed up a week or so later, plants out the five sturdiest sprouts, each with its pedigree label (number five would be kept on the sidelines in reserve). Now the arduous work begins. “Left alone, these seedlings would produce 300-pound fruit,” says Wheeler. But the goal is to boost them to as much as five times that. So throughout the summer and early fall he spends up to 14 after-work hours a week tending his charges (despite occasional murmurs from his wife, Kristin). “The most important chores are watering and feeding,” he says. At full growth the plants need 200 to 300 gallons of water a week, and need booster fertilizers—phosphate and
nitrogen for roots and leaves, a high potassium diet for fruit growth, and calcium to thicken cell walls for extra weight. The fertilizers are sprayed on from a 50-gallon tank.

By early July vines have grown from each plant, showing flower buds along the long stems. Pumpkins carry separate male and female flowers, and in the normal course of engendering fruit, bees or other insects carry the pollen they gather randomly from male flowers to the reproductive organ of the females. But Wheeler and other AG growers cannot risk such a free-love technique; they need to make sure that desirable genetic traits are transmitted. Wheeler chooses male flowers from other pumpkins, picks them off, and then painstakingly shakes their pollen into the open female blossoms that had been encased in paper bags, a sort of modern-day chastity belt to avoid accidents.

Nothing is left to chance. As the vines grow, Wheeler buries the side shoots to root and suck up extra nourishment. When the fruits form on the by-now 12-foot vine, they are vetted and only the ones that grow the fastest are retained. (Weight is calculated daily with the aid of a tape measure.) The pumpkins are shifted to be at right angle to the stem so they don’t break off; sand or fabric is slipped under them to prevent rotting; at beach-ball size, they need protection from the sun so their skin doesn’t harden and split; at the optimum growing time in August—a colossal 30 to 40 pounds a day!—fertilizing and water are boosted or withheld, to regulate the growth rate. Still, sometimes the pumpkins explode from the pressure of moisture inside. Pests are an ongoing threat—the dreaded squash vine borer or the cucumber beetle can destroy crops in a flash; fungus may cause the pumpkins to cawve in. (David Garrell, a doctor in Fairfield, lost a potential 1,019-pounder “personal best” to what began as a tiny fungus-caused lesion.) Hail storms are a major hazard. (Ray Leonzi of Trumbull went on a brief vacation one August and in his absence hail had turned his pumpkins to mush.) When cold nights are predicted, blankets are spread. Always the worst fear is that a pumpkin will split. Wheeler saw his 2008 potential winners succumb, when heavy rains after a long period of drought caused them to split from the stem into the cavity. Once the flesh is broken through, no matter how slightly, the pumpkin is disqualified, wiping out overnight months of intense hard work.

Yet, Wheeler is back again this year. Why? “It’s pretty cool to see fruit grow at this rate,” he says.” Joe Pukos adds: “It’s for the friendships you make with people of all walks of life with the same interest.” Then he says jokingly: “And my wife always knows where I am: in the pumpkin patch.” Wheelchair-bound Steve Jepson, of Stratford, president of the Connecticut club and a cub-scout leader who involves scouts in pumpkin-growing, says: “Every day you can get a kid to play in the dirt and not a computer game is a lucky day.” Tom Privera, an information technology director in Poughkeepsie, New York, puts it succinctly: “Growing pumpkins is an obsession. It is part of who I am.”

The morning of the weigh-off, four or five like-minded friends gather at Wheeler’s patch. The largest pumpkins are severed from the plant at the last moment (they can lose a pound a day off the vine), carefully slid onto a wooden pallet, with a fork-lift placed on Adam’s truck and ferried to the weigh-off location There they are lined up with the other 30-or-so entries (a few giant green squash join the pumpkins), as their owners and owners’ families in pumpkin-colored T-shirts circle and gossip among them. The mood is joyous—and suspenseful, when each gourd is hoisted onto a scale and the judges announce the weight, then enter it on a board with the grower’s name. Every grower hopes at least to best his past record. There is a weight-guessing contest, and prizes galore, funded by the club’s seed auctions—for junior champion growers, for locally grown pumpkins, the Howard Dill award for the best-looking pumpkin, and the grand prize—$1,000 for the top weight. “The prize money in no way makes up for the expenses,” says Wheeler, “but, wow, what a thrill to hear that winning weight.” He has won at other weigh-offs, but the Connecticut one has eluded him. Who knows, he may become champion this year, and then national champion, even world champion! It’s every grower’s ambition.

Is there a life for giant pumpkins after the weigh-off? Some are carved into boats and “sailed” at Halloween on Tyler Lake in Goshen. Some are taken to visit schools—specifically, Kristin Wheeler’s kindergarten class in Waterbury. Some are quickly broken up for their seeds. But perhaps their finest mission is to proclaim to the world: “Yes, Linus, you were right! The Giant Pumpkin does come!”

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November 2018

Get a head-start on your holiday shopping at this festive pop-up boutique featuring jewelry and objects by widely-known artists working in a range of media. Take the opportunity to enjoy the...

Cost: Members: FREE Non-Members: $10 Adults. $5 Seniors. $5 Students.

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
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We welcome the Omer Quartet as our 2018–19 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence for their first concert in the Music Room. Top prize-winners of the 2017 Young Concert Artists...

Cost: $25, $40, Free tickets for students 18 and under!

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
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Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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The Sanctuary Series begins its 2018-2019 Season on Sunday afternoon, November 11, with "Studies in Virtuosity" featuring Ukrainian-Canadian pianist Dmitri Levkovich in the Sanctuary of the South...

Cost: $15 to $50

Where:
South Salem Presbyterian Church
111 Spring Street
South Salem, NY  10590
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Sponsor: The Sanctuary Series
Telephone: 914-763-5402
Contact Name: Mary Jane Newman
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On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
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More information

Show More...
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Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
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Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
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Cost: Free

Where:
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32 Strawberry Hill Court
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Sponsor: HSS Sports Rehab
Telephone: 203-705-2933
Contact Name: Pamela Villagomez
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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

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Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
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View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

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914INC. will host its annual Women in Business Luncheon, to be held in conjunction with the magazine’s Q4/Winter issue, showcasing leading area businesswomen.

Cost: Single Ticket: $85 / Table of Ten: $800

Where:
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Tarrytown, NY  10591
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Sponsor: 914INC and Westchester Magazine
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More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555

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On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

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Cost: 50.00

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633 Old Post Road
bedford, NY
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Cost: Ages 3 to 64, $10; Seniors, $5; kids under 3, free.

Where:
Danbury Sports Dome
25 Shelter Rock Ln
Danbury, CT  06810
View map »


Sponsor: Ann's Place
Telephone: 203-790-6568
Contact Name: Michelle Frosch
Website »

More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Friday mornings from 10:30 to 12:30. Free, no registration. Open to adults and older teens. Participants are asked to bring their own supplies in, but some basic supplies will be provided by the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
View map »


Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
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Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555
Website »

More information

Westchester Oratorio Society, Artistic Director Benjamin Niemczyk, opens its 21st season with a concert entitled, “An Evening with Bach” at the South Salem Presbyterian Church,...

Cost: $15 to $50

Where:
South Salem Presbyterian Church
111 Spring Street
South Salem, NY  10590
View map »


Sponsor: Westchester Oratorio Society
Telephone: 800 838 3006
Contact Name: Joe Spallina
Website »

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Molsky’s Mountain Drifters brings tradition steeped in possibility. The grace and wisdom of longtime fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Molsky, described as “an absolute...

Cost: $25, $40, $55, $70

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
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Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

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Saturday, November 17th from 12:00 - 3:00 PM for kids K+. Plan on staying with your children and having fun together.   This year’s annual STEAMFEST will feature Mad Science’s special...

Cost: Free

Where:
Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
276 Titicus Road
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View map »


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Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
Website »

More information

Meet us under the Dome and catch all the excitement! Come out for the 16th Annual Festival of Trees to benefit Ann’s Place at the Danbury Sports Dome for a weekend filled with live events...

Cost: Ages 3 to 64, $10; Seniors, $5; kids under 3, free.

Where:
Danbury Sports Dome
25 Shelter Rock Ln
Danbury, CT  06810
View map »


Sponsor: Ann's Place
Telephone: 203-790-6568
Contact Name: Michelle Frosch
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

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